In a month, the Kemper Open begins, not at Congressional Country Club, but at its new permanent home, The Tournament Players Club at Avenel. Last Monday, the three central figures in bringing stadium golf to Washington gathered at Avenel Farm to make last-minute course corrections and consider what they had wrought. If PGA Commissioner Deane Beman, course architect Ed Sneed and tournament Chairman Ben Brundred had been much happier with what they saw, they couldn't have remained earthbound.
The judgments of the public, players and press will define Avenel's ultimate place in the course and tournament pantheon. That verdict will begin to arrive June 4-7. However, some earnest early returns came in.
"Ticket sales are ahead of last year's record pace by $100,000 already. The pro-am's been sold out for months. The field is far better than it's ever been. All four defending champions in the majors will be here--Greg Norman, Larry Mize, Bob Tway and Ray Floyd. We have Sandy Lyle, who won the Tournament Players Championship, and Cory Pavin, Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Hal Sutton," reeled off Brundred. "The zoysia grass (fairways) are the future of golf in this area. This course is in as good condition as Congressional right now. For the first year, that's amazing."
Said Beman: "We have created one of the finer tournament courses in the world. It's turned out to be an outstanding stadium course because the rolling land here was ideal for creating natural amphitheater effects.
"It will be a shotmaker's course and a golf fan's course. I'm not sure we can give higher praise than that to what we've tried to do," Beman said of the 6,864-yard, par-71 layout that begins with a dozen holes sweeping through woods, then ends with a half-dozen holes carved into open hillsides. "This compares very favorably to any modern course built in the last 10 years or so. It's right there with the best. . . . This is a watershed time for golf course creation. There are more great courses being built now than at any time in history."
Avenel should have the charm of both novelty and controversy. Will the course prove too short and easy?
"With good weather, there will be some 64s shot. If there aren't, there's something wrong because the players are that good," said Beman. "That doesn't bother me at all. . . . We're testing shots, not preventing scores."
What about Sneed's notion of creating many holes with an indeterminate par?
Two years ago, before the $8-million project began, he said, "We want holes that are natural to the land and exciting for the fans. . . . If 'par' for that hole happens to be 2 1/2, 3 1/2, 4 1/2 or 5 1/2, I don't care. A whole course needs par, but I've never understood why every hole needs it."
Now the job, his first as an architect, is done and he's holding his breath. "I'll be pretty anxious--nervous about what the players think and how they'll play the holes," Sneed said. "Frankly, some holes I thought would be the very best, like No. 6 (a mirror image of No. 13 at the Masters), are not as spectacular as I thought. But three or four others are much better than I expected--they are rather spectacular, like No. 15."
That 458-yard hole, conceived as an easy par 5, but now a monstrous 4, has several beautiful trees starkly silhouetted across the fairway 100 yards in front of the green.
What about perhaps the greatest fear of all--the precarious marriage of one of the greatest pieces of golf course land left on the East Coast and a real estate development (Potomac Investment Associates)?
Well, if you want to see houses under construction, you won't have to look far at Avenel. Bulldozers, dirt and raw earth hit your eye from the moment you enter--all the worst is right up front near the entrance. Golf purists can call it strip-mansioning, but the PGA Tour, which owns all the stadium course Players Clubs, had no choice.
"We got $15 to $20 million worth of real estate for $1," said Beman, the brain behind that brilliant land grab. "We had to trade something. There are no free lunches. If you look at one or two holes (especially Nos. 13 and 14), you will not be pleased. Look at all the holes, and I think it's beautiful."
In fact, 10 holes should not have a house anywhere in sight and on three others you've got to look hard to find the omnipresent colonial brick motif. Still, this course will never have Congressional's sense of isolation or its majesty. Will fans think Beman's glass is half-full or half-empty?
"In two or three years, the scars (of course building and home construction) will be gone and it will look like this course has been here for 50 years," Beman said. "Most courses need 10 to 15 years to create that sense of maturity."